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Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl: An Autobiography

Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl: An Autobiography

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Sex and Shopping: The Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl: An Autobiography

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642 Seiten
9 Stunden
May 11, 2000


Dear Reader,

As I was about to start my eleventh novel, I abruptly realized that I was making a huge mistake. On the verge of launching into the imagined world of a twenty-eight-year-old, I felt an intense need to tell another story, the story of a woman I know through and through...a woman with more wealth of experience, a woman who's seen more real glamour, known more fascinating people, lived in a world of more sophistication, and arrived at more hard-won maturity than that twenty-eight-year-old could hope for---in short, my own story. I've tried to remain as unknowable as possible, the better to let my heroines hold the stage, but now I was ready to tell the truth about myself, with no holding back.

I've had a different life from that of the majority of women of my generation and background. While I seemed like another "nice Jewish girl," underneath that convenient cover I'd traveled my own, inner-directed path and had many a spicy and secret adventure. I grew up in a complicated tangle of privilege, family problems, and tormented teenaged sexuality. After a riotous education at Wellesley, my life was turned upside down by a glorious year in Paris, marked by an intense but ill-starred romance. I spent the next half-decade in New York, sowing lighthearted wild oats until I finally met my true love, to whom I've been married for forty-six years.

When I was fifty I had an utterly unexpected, almost unbelievable success as a number-one bestselling novelist that has continued for book after book. Challenging, lucky, exciting, and often devastatingly askew, my life seems to have been lived under a wild and antic star.

I've had as much amazing fun as my heroines, and here's the book to prove it.

Judith Krantz

May 11, 2000

Über den Autor

Judith Krantz is the author of Scruples, Princess Daisy, Mistral's Daughter, I'll Take Manhattan, Till We Meet Again, Dazzle, Scruples Two, Lovers, Spring Collection, and The Jewels of Tessa Kent

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Sex and Shopping - Judith Krantz


Chapter One

I PUSHED, DRAGGED, AND BUMPED MY HEAVY SUITCASE ALONG THE narrow corridor of the night train to Paris. I was so filled with the exhilaration of wild high spirits that I welcomed the challenge of finding a seat. Finally, in triumph, I wedged my luggage into an almost nonexistent slot I’d just noticed with the experienced eye of a veteran of the New York subway.

I was one of the last, amid the overflow crowd of other skiers, to find a place to sit for the long ride back to the Gare du Nord. The slowly moving train started to pick up speed and we were finally well under way, back from Megève, in the French Alps, where I’d just spent two weeks skiing. Twelve hours from now I’d be home, but I had twelve hours to pass with a blessed partition to lean against and a reassuringly bulky sandwich safe in the pocket of my ski parka.

Even if I’d been able to get a ticket in a compartment, I’d have been too blissfully excited to sleep this night anyway, I realized. Right now, at this very minute, it was still January 8, 1949, and I, Judy Tarcher, was only twenty years old. In just two hours, at the very first stroke of midnight, I would turn twenty-one. I would attain my legal majority, I’d be able to vote, I’d be allowed to drink in a bar without false I.D., I could get a driving license—at last, at last I’d officially be a grown-up! Tomorrow I was going to be given three birthday parties, and that wonderfully celebratory prospect made me giddy with anticipation as I looked around me, beaming in good humor at the prospect of a night in the packed, lurching corridor.

Dozens of skiers were settling down, already engrossed in newspapers or books. I’d been too busy in the station, struggling to balance my skis on my shoulder and manage my suitcase, to buy a new copy of Paris Match or Elle. But I’d spent what seemed like most of my lifetime reading, so I welcomed this opportunity to sit back quietly and think about where and whither and what next. I needed this time before I got back to Paris and the bewildering pace of my new existence there. I was living as a paying guest in the home of Nicole Bouchet de Fareins, a fascinatingly complicated divorced woman in her late thirties, with three teenaged daughters, and my life held daily surprises.

I knew I was being silly, but I was unable to stop myself as I opened my shoulder bag and fished out a little date book. Once more I checked tomorrow’s date. Sunday, January 9, 1949. No, nothing had happened to change it in the two hours since I’d last looked.

As I tucked the book safely away, I realized that a middle-aged, well-nourished Frenchman was looking at me with barely disguised attention as he took a pull on his flask. He was close enough for me to smell the brandy and I imagined, in my heightened sense of self-awareness, that I could read his mind. A fresh young one, he’d probably be thinking, with childishly round pink cheeks, still far too young to be of any real interest yet not totally without a certain appeal. I knew perfectly well that my light brown hair and artless, fluffy bangs framed an ingenuous, innocent face. Petite as I was, this man would never believe I was as good as twenty-one. If he kept on staring, I flattered myself, he might eventually catalog what I considered my only features of distinction, a pouting lower lip that was much fuller than the upper one, and large, light gray-green eyes.

Of course he’d be able to tell with half a glance that there was no possibility that I was French. There was just something about me, I couldn’t figure out what, that breathed American-ness. But perhaps, later on, when the train ride had come to seem unbearably long, he’d offer to share some of his brandy with me. Perhaps not. He’d certainly assume that I didn’t speak enough French, if any, to offer any amusement.

Losing interest in trying to mind-read, I closed my eyes and returned to my own thoughts of the morrow and Nicole’s welcome.

Ah, that Nicole, how she dominated my time in France, I mused. I was still incredulously happy that we’d finally become friends. I hadn’t dared to imagine that such a thing could ever happen during those first miserable weeks in September when I’d arrived to live at her house once my family had returned to New York after our summer tour of Europe. For weeks she regarded me with unmistakable suspicion in her brilliantly dark and often frighteningly cold eyes. She’d been so unwelcoming that I realized only dire financial need had made her take me in. But, God almighty, I’d been so lucky to have landed at her house instead of at some proper French lady’s.

Fascinating, mysterious undercurrents of intrigue, drama, and inside humor ran among Nicole, her two sisters, and the group of four or five young men in their twenties who dropped by almost every night for a drink and often stayed through a meager dinner that was rolled into the salon on a trolley and carefully served by the three younger girls and me. I was still unable to understand precisely why these eligible fellows came by so often, but I’d learned to accept them with pleasure.

But then every hour in Paris was a major learning experience, I reflected joyously, leaning back against the partition behind me, slumping as comfortably as possible and swaying with the rhythm of the train. I was learning at Nicole’s, learning at my relatively new job in public relations, learning even through the laughter I provoked and the criticism I received.

Only a few months earlier, in October, I’d been thoroughly put in my place by Nicole and her sisters. I was just beginning to venture a few quavering, timid words of the language I was learning rapidly through total immersion, which was backed up by my three years of high-school French that consisted of barely remembered written drills in verbs and vocabulary.

After lunch, when Nicole’s daughters had gone back to school, I was allowed to join her and her sisters, Francette and Anne, for a demitasse and a single, carefully chosen piece of the brown, roughly hewn lumps of sugar that were the only sweet thing ever offered in these postwar days of strict food rationing. I sat and listened to them chirp at each other, catching words here and there, and sometimes even the meaning of an entire sentence. It seemed to me that Francette, the youngest of the sisters, had said something highly disparaging about love, and in the silence that followed, I’d forced myself to formulate a phrase and finally managed to say that l’amour est très agréable.

They’d turned on me, three enraged harpies, and informed me with vigorous disdain that no little American virgin had so much as the right to speak of love, to dare to have the slightest opinion, since, silly unformed creature that I was, I could know nothing whatsoever about love and would never know anything as long as I remained in my state of absurd, provincial, ridiculously infantile ignorance.

Oh, they had certainly let me know what they thought about me, I reflected, still a little miffed, but they’d also let the cat out of the bag. Now I realized that virginity, that utterly essential state, that precious condition that must be maintained at whatever price, was, amazingly, not as highly valued in France as it was in the United States.

I couldn’t put my finger on when I’d first heard the word virgin or known what that meant, but for as long as I could remember, the worst thing you could say about a single girl was that she wasn’t one. As far as I knew, the fearsome commandment to be a virgin until marriage cut across all religious lines, as much for Jews like me as for Protestants and Catholics.

A girl who lost her virginity, as far as my Wellesley classmates were concerned, was tarnished in the eyes of everyone who knew of this scandal. She’d severely compromised her chance of marrying the right kind of boy because her reputation was gone, and a girl’s reputation . . . well, without a good reputation, what did it matter how popular or cute you were?

I gave up on this particular puzzle, and as the dizzying thought of my birthday returned to my mind, I opened my eyes and searched for my compact. I inspected myself carefully in the compact mirror. You’re as good as you’re going to get, I silently told my reflection, delighted by my high color, bright eyes, and shining hair. Two weeks of nothing but fresh air and physical effort had been a well-earned tonic after the often difficult months in Paris. I was on the alert every minute of every day, painfully poised at most moments so that I could swim in the unfamiliar waters of a French household and, recently, in a French office as well.

I was more than ready for my thrilling trio of birthday parties, I told myself, my heart beating fast at the thought. Nicole was planning a gala family lunch for me; John Cavanaugh, a couture design assistant and a new friend, was giving me a tea party; and Harrison Elliott, my Californian boss, was having a cocktail party for me, followed by a dinner with some of his former colleagues at Dior, where he’d been head of PR until he’d opened his own firm a year earlier.

I’d told my parents all about these dazzling prospects in the three weekly letters I wrote at their command, but since they rarely wrote back, I had no idea what they thought of my new world—a world that was still so beyond me in its sophistication that I was full of wonder that it had opened up to me at all.

I’d found a job in Paris, I thought with intense gratitude as I bought an orange drink from a vendor who was working his way though the train, and now my parents had to keep their promise to allow me to stay until next summer if I got work. They didn’t know it yet, but I knew that I’d never go home. Whenever people asked me how long I was going to stay in Paris, I answered, Forever! My passion for the city only grew the more I knew it. As I thought of Paris, I felt that I was able to hold all of it cupped in my hands, a guarantee of constant joy, a discovery I’d been the first in the world to make, a treasure I was determined to possess forever.

I’d never been so happy in all my life! The only disappointment I had was that my birthday had fallen two months too late to vote for Harry Truman in the last election, and that mattered to me, an ardent Democrat. When Truman won, after I’d told everyone I knew to expect Dewey to become president, I’d lost all political credibility. The French blamed the whole upset on my personal lack of political savvy.

They were big on assigning blame, the French, I thought, my cheeks suddenly burning. Like that time, perhaps six or seven weeks earlier, when Hubert, one of the group who came for dinner, had had to spend the night at Nicole’s because it was too foggy out to walk safely to the Métro. She’d delegated me to take him sheets and blankets and make up his bed on the big sofa in the salon. So okay, I’d let him kiss me a little, nothing worth speaking of—Hubert was a sweetie—and lo and behold, the next day Nicole all but handed me my walking papers. She was so angry that it took me half an hour to figure out what it was she was screaming about. Hubert had had a wet dream during the night and stained her sofa upholstery, and, of course, it was all my fault! I was, according to her, an allumeuse, a lighter of fires, as no honest woman would be. Worse, she’d accused me of being a demievièrge, the French expression for the worst kind of sexual tease, as far as I could figure out. All we’d done was a bit of necking, for heaven’s sake, absolutely nothing compared to what went on during a Princeton football weekend, but try to explain that to a Frenchwoman in a flood of indignation.

Yes, I’d certainly changed worlds when I’d realized I had to live in France, I reflected. If I’d gone home as planned, I’d be dating the kind of Ivy League graduates who knew all the rules as well as I did, eligible boys at the beginning of successful careers in their fathers’ businesses, rich, respectful, yearning, courting me like crazy. But here I was, three thousand miles away from my parents, from my native turf, from anyone who knew who Judy Tarcher was or what kind of family she came from—a year of anonymity, a year in which just to be me and find my wings.

I decided it was time to eat my sandwich. Seeing me unwrap my baguette filled with ham and cheese, my curious neighbor pulled out his flask and gestured hospitably at me. Voulez-vous en goûter un peu, Madame? he asked politely, but I pretended that I didn’t speak French. No, thank you. I smiled as nicely as possible, making a regretful but firmly negative face. Just one drink and I might be in for an all-night conversation, but I was determined to keep myself to myself. All this introspection was putting things into place in a way that hadn’t happened since I’d first arrived.

Because I was living at Nicole’s, I was meeting a bunch of French aristocrats totally unlike the guys I’d known at college. What exactly had I to expect from them? They were not remotely marriage material for a nice Jewish girl. Not, God forbid, that I wanted to marry! As far as I was concerned, marriage had always loomed as the gateway to slavery and I truly pitied the hordes of my classmates who’d rushed into it right after graduation.

But it was more than odd, I mused, that after four years of fending off men who’d wanted to marry me, here I was, a bare hour or so from turning twenty-one, without even a boyfriend in my life. On those occasions when we ate in a restaurant, we always went en masse, with Nicole as the centerpiece. She was a captivatingly seductive woman when she chose to be, with magnificent long dark hair she refused to cut in the new style, and those gorgeous legs that she knew so well how to display. Was it possible, I asked myself, almost choking on my ham and cheese, that I was too American to even be considered date material by boys who were only a few years older than I was?

No, damn it, that simply was not possible, I assured myself firmly. One of the few areas in which I had definite self-confidence was my ability to ensnare the opposite sex. I could hardly have lost it, could I, because of a difference of three thousand miles? Wasn’t I still the girl who had thirteen dates with thirteen different men on thirteen consecutive nights last year at college? Hadn’t there been an abortive movement, confined alas to my dorm, to vote me Most Cuddly when it came time for the class to vote on Most Sophisticated, Most Beautiful, and Most Intellectual?

I slumped lower and reflected deeply. Here I was, isolated by an entire ocean from any supervision by my parents or observation by anyone who knew them. Here I was, out of any possibility of contact with the world of eligible Jewish boys who could all find out something about me no matter where they were from, a world that I would most likely enter one day in the far-distant future when I would finally give in and get married. Here I was, free, private, safe from gossip, more independent than I’d ever been or would ever be again in my life. Here I was, old enough to vote, for Christ’s sake, and I was wasting my evenings on a bunch of guys who didn’t take me seriously.

I’d been alone in France four full months and eight days, and during all that time I’d only been kissed by Hubert. It was absurd, ridiculous, insane! I was legally in charge of myself and yet I was still clinging to my state of virginity in a country where being a virgin not only didn’t seem crucial but was a sign of being immature, still a kid.

Suddenly I sat up straight on my suitcase, propelled by a conviction that abruptly pierced my mind. Now that I was old enough to vote, I was old enough to lose my virginity. I felt liberated from all the old constraints, the old taboos. I didn’t understand the connection voting had with virginity, but I didn’t need to. I was absolutely certain that one existed, as clearly as I was abruptly but totally liberated from all the old rules and fears that had guaranteed my virginity up until now. The time was right, I told myself, and if ever there was a place that was right, it was Paris. And nobody at home would ever know anything about it! It was the perfect opportunity! Yes, oh yes indeed, I was going to sleep with the first man who asked me, and that’s a promise, Mr. President!

I felt as stunned as if I were newly born, as if I’d just opened my eyes on an entirely different world from the one I’d entered when I’d clambered onto the train. I was determined, positive, quivering with resolution, decisively aware that I had finally come to my senses, and I could barely wait to get back to Paris to set the wheels in motion. I didn’t know how exactly, but now that I’d shed my old constraints, I’d be giving out different vibrations and someone would tune in to them.

Oh, this moment absolutely called for a toast, I thought, looking around at my portly neighbor. He was still awake, but deep in a magazine. I nudged him gently, smiled, and addressed him politely, reminding him of his earlier offer in the most fluent French I’d ever heard myself speak. He looked at me in astonishment, but quickly he smiled back and pulled out his flask, unscrewed a little metal cup, filled it, and handed it to me. I lifted the cup in his direction, but mentally directed the toast at myself. Merci mille fois, Monsieur. A votre santé, I said, and tossed the spirits down in one fiery, unfaltering gulp.

READER, THAT TRAIN trip took place fifty years ago. I realize that today few, if any, American girls of twenty-one would be so concerned with their virginity, but half a century ago, it had an importance too great to be measured. Looking back at the girl I was, to the girl whose emotions I still remember so vividly, to the girl who was poised on the brink of the happiest time of her life, to the girl whose innocence was intact in so many ways, to the girl who had never wept for a lost love, all I can say is, Weren’t you lucky beyond words? And weren’t you even luckier to be fully conscious and acutely aware of your luck as it unfolded?

Chapter Two

MANY AUTOBIOGRAPHIES BEGIN WITH A NOSTALGIC LOOK AT CHILDHOOD and phrases like It was always summer as one long blissful, bee-humming day followed another. Or else they start slowly, with a family tree that begins too many generations back from the subject of the autobiography. My childhood summers consisted, by and large, of frequent application of calamine lotion to endless cases of poison ivy, and my family tree is short. More than short, it’s a downright twig. I don’t even know my father’s mother’s maiden name, although I do know she was a scarlet woman whose very existence was never to be mentioned in front of him.

I’d rather make my second start at recording my life with the vivid memory of the first time I glimpsed the adult world in all its excitement and glamour. I must have been seven years old when my parents, Jack and Mickey Tarcher, decided that my sister, Mimi, and I were old enough to be taken out for our first evening event, a performance of Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo at Carnegie Hall. Mimi would have been five and a half. Our brother, Jeremy, only three, was, of course, left at home with our nurse.

The two of us, Mimi already taller than me, were dressed alike as usual. She wore a coral and white print smocked silk dress and I was in turquoise and white, both of us with patent-leather Mary Janes, white socks, and Buster Brown haircuts with bows in our hair. We were famously delicious-looking children, reader, as you will see for yourself from the pictures in this autobiography, and exceptionally well behaved. Or rather, I was well behaved and Mimi behaved when my mother was watching her.

I don’t remember the ballet, but I have a clear-cut vision of the intermission. A friend of the family’s, known to everyone simply as Joffe, loomed up as soon as the first half was over and commanded, Judy and Mimi, come with me, I have a special treat for you. Joffe was Marian Anderson’s manager and high in the organization of Sol Hurok, impresario of the Ballets Russes. I thought we might be going backstage, but instead, Joffe, that great, kindly, sweating bulk, escorted us to a box in the center of the first row of the balcony. With alarming formality he presented us to Mrs. Sara Delano Roosevelt, President Roosevelt’s mother. No English child meeting the queen could have felt greater awe or a deeper sense of starstruck reverence than I did as I shook hands with this faintly smiling, shawl-draped grande dame who, unimaginably, was the mother of the only president who had ever existed for me, a godlike figure until his death ten years later in the spring of my freshman year at college.

You’re going to have to leave before the next half of the ballet, Mrs. Roosevelt said to us gravely, and so am I. Do you know why? It’s because you’re too young and I’m too old.

After the intermission my parents took us next door to the Russian Tea Room, the first time we’d ever been out to a restaurant at night. Every one of the hundreds of times I’ve been there since has been colored by the rapturous excitement of that first evening.

A New Yorker, a born Democrat, the oldest of three children, the daughter of worldly and cultivated parents—so much at least can be deduced about me from this memory.

I was then in the third grade, but my school days had started long before, at the unusually young age of eighteen months, when my parents had sent me to the wildly experimental City and Country School, during the period when early childhood education was just becoming a subject for intense study.

My primary impressions of school were of block building, and even today I have a book that was published analyzing the various constructions we made, several of them mine. The most elaborate, ambitious, and indeed stunning construction of all I named merely, from lack of imagination or modesty, A Decoration.

One other memory, however, is surprisingly vivid. One hot June day when I was two and a half, my teachers decided to let the class strip bare and frolic about on the roof of the school in streams of water sprayed from hoses. I immediately ran and hid in the terrifying closet in which the puppets were kept, until a search party discovered me an hour later. No boy was going to see me naked! The mere thought was an outrage from which I’ve still not entirely recovered. Didn’t those teachers have any respect for my modesty?

Family legend has it that when strangers visited the City and Country School, they would spot me tranquilly looking at a picture book, seated on a chair in a world of my own, and comment favorably on my deportment. She’s a problem, my teacher would sigh. "She’s a problem? the visitor would ask. What about all those other kids screaming and tearing out their hair and hitting each other? That’s the problem, Judy’s too well behaved" was the answer.

When I was born, my parents lived in a rented brownstone, 29 Fifth Avenue, a block from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. My father was a thriving advertising man who owned his own busy agency, J. D. Tarcher and Co. My mother, a future lawyer, had just received her M.A. in economics from Columbia.

In the fall of 1933, when I was five and a half, we moved uptown, to the St. Urban at 285 Central Park West, a picturesque, late Edwardian building. The massive twelve-story apartment house rejoiced in the possession of a porte cochere through which horses and carriages had been driven when it was built.

The family had left Greenwich Village so that I could start first grade—the youngest and the shortest in the class—at Birch Wathen, a small, private, co-ed school I attended for the next eleven years. I skipped my junior year of high school and graduated in 1944, at sixteen . . . still the youngest and the shortest in the class.

I had been accepted for first grade at Brearley, one of the five fashionably right New York schools for future debutantes, but my mother decided that an institution with a tiny Jewish quota might pose problems for me in years to come. Little Birch Wathen, however, had fallen on difficult days because of the Depression and those two Episcopalian maiden ladies, Miss Birch and Miss Wathen, who had formerly educated as few Jews as possible, had been forced to admit as many as they could to keep the school open.

The only Gentiles I remember in all my years there were the teachers and the scholarship kids, most of them boys since this co-ed school was overwhelmingly female. Nevertheless, we had chapel every Friday morning and a much-anticipated Christmas assembly at which Miss Birch would solemnly read us the story of the birth of Christ out of her own family Bible. Afterward we would sing a half dozen Christmas carols, which we’d been practicing for months, and then walk in a dignified manner, one by one, to the rather skimpy Christmas tree and be given a handshake and a candy cane. To this day I know all the words to all the verses of Good King Wenceslas, and I love to sing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear when no one can hear me, since I can’t carry a tune. But no sprinkling of spun-sugar Christianity, pretty as it was, had a chance to influence any of us, since we knew perfectly well that we were Jewish.

On the other hand, unlike the other girls in my class, I didn’t receive any Jewish education either. My parents were both deeply involved in Jewish philanthropies, often spending four nights a week at various meetings, but, as completely secular Jews, they never felt any need to join a synagogue. One day, when Mimi and I were about seven and nine, my mother told us that she’d enrolled us in the Sunday school at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue just down the street. We came home howling with wrath and indignation after one incomprehensible session, during which, to add to our fury, the teachers had insisted on calling us by our full names, Judith and Miriam. Well, girls, just don’t ever complain that I never exposed you to religion, my mother said with a shrug, and that, thank God, was that.

We did go to one or two Passover Seders at the home of Fanny and Leonard Cohen, my parents’ closest friends, who had been the only two witnesses at their City Hall wedding. Fanny and Len had been appointed official godparents to all three of us, a position I don’t believe exists in Judaism, but my mother wanted to make sure that if she and Daddy died in an accident, they’d bring us up together. I still see the ruby red of the wine in my glass at Fanny’s Seder table, I still remember how delicious it was, how I drank as much of it as I could and how I was carried to a bed, where I passed out cold.

I understand the need for religious conviction and I deeply envy those who have that amazing thing called faith for the comfort and support it gives them. My exercise teacher and devoted friend for the past twenty years, Diane Severino, was born Catholic and became a born-again Christian more than twenty years ago. She believes every last word in the Old and the New Testaments. Diane assures me that even if I wait until my deathbed to accept Christ as my personal savior, I’ll go straight to heaven, as a completed Jew. Otherwise, unfortunately, I’m doomed to hellfire, deeply fond as she is of me. She doesn’t think this is in any way intolerant, merely an ultimate truth that faith has revealed to her.

But my masseuse, Darlene Jamen, is a former secular Jew who had a classic and documented near-death experience when she drowned for almost a half hour after a scuba diving accident. She found herself part of a gigantic, glowing, many-colored, marvelously singing crystal. She returned to her body reluctantly, thinking that she’d been expelled from heaven because of her bad spelling. Darlene assures me that I am, without question, going to heaven, no matter how little I believe in any religion or an afterlife. Also, she adds, Hitler will go to heaven too, although more slowly than the rest of us. She promises me that in heaven I’ll be able to carry a tune. Between Diane and Darlene I can only laugh, throw up my hands, and wish them both the best of luck. If there is a heaven, I’ll be there although my spelling too is all but nonexistent. Won’t Diane be surprised? Won’t I be surprised!

I have one more meaningful early memory. My brother, Jeremy, was born on January 2, 1932, almost exactly four years after I was. Soon Mimi and I watched him being diapered. I took one look at his penis and grasped, once and forever, the total conviction that he possessed something better than anything I had, something I wanted desperately and something I knew I’d never get. That baroquely curly plump little object was instantly desirable beyond any measure, although I didn’t understand why.

Freud was wrong about a number of things, but for little Judy Tarcher, penis envy was as real as the computer I’m writing this on, except that I have a computer . . . two, in fact. Mimi, on the other hand, has no such feeling. Although she also remembers seeing Jeremy being diapered, she thought he was deformed in some way. So there you go . . . another set of different opinions. Maybe I will get to heaven and discover that there I have a penis! If I could be sure of this, I’d die happy.

I decided to write this autobiography in July 1998 when it finally occurred to me that I’d been seventy for six months. Good Lord, seventy! What, reader, could sound more definitive? Three score years and ten, that classically biblical age from which to look backward. I can’t begin to feel that the number seventy refers to me, but simple math strongly suggests that a baby girl born on January 9, 1928, has a good chance of discovering that she’s seventy in 1998. And, unlike Oscar Wilde, I’ve always been honest about my age, except for a short period right after I wrote my first novel. Wilde said, I have never admitted that I am more than twenty-nine or thirty at the most. Twenty-nine when there are pink shades, thirty when there are not.

When I was sixty-nine I had no idea how pleased I’d be by seventy. It sounds damn impressive. You can’t brush aside seventy until you’re eighty. When I give someone advice, I now, albeit foolishly, expect a tiny bit of respect for the years that have supposedly brought me wisdom. However, whatever I’ve learned, I believe that no one ever fully grows up inside. You can mellow, yes, but total maturity doesn’t exist. The great secret is that no adults have ever strode this planet, and neither Eleanor Roosevelt nor Georgia O’Keeffe ever woke up one morning and thought, Today, right now, this very minute, I’m a one-hundred-percent grown-up.

Reader, try to think of me as going on thirty-six, without pink shades.

Private schools, a nurse, silk dresses, a trip to the ballet . . . it all sounds very privileged. And it was, especially in the depths of the Depression, but this is not the story of a future Marjorie Morningstar, this is the story of a Nice Jewish Girl Who Had Some Amazing Fun and Went Interestingly Askew.

Chapter Three

AS AMERICAN BACKGROUNDS GO, MINE IS ABOUT AS RECENT AS YOU can get, unless you’re an immigrant. My paternal grandfather, Ben, possessed a last name that was pronounced Tatachook, although I don’t know how it was spelled. A cabinetmaker, he arrived at Ellis Island in the 1890s from some tiny settlement in Russia. He and his wife, Tilly, gravitated to Mott Street, then a teeming Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There my father, named Jack David, the first of their children, was born in July 1896. Whenever I hear the lighthearted lyric Oh, tell me what street compares to Mott Street in July, from Rodgers and Hart’s ballad Manhattan, I think of my grandmother giving birth in a mean, low-ceilinged room in a tiny tenement apartment during the tropical heat of a New York summer.

Soon it became evident that there was no future in cabinetmaking for Ben Tatachook, and he moved his family to Bergen County in New Jersey, where he ran a chicken farm as a tenant farmer. Two other children were born, Max and Bess. I have pictures of my father as a young farm boy, in overalls and a straw hat, sucking on a piece of hay. In later life he was never able to so much as look at a dead, unplucked chicken without gagging, and in a moment of self-revelation, so rare as to be astonishing, he told me that one of his farm jobs had been gathering the newly laid chicken eggs.

When my father was thirteen, tragedy and almost unthinkable scandal struck the family. Grandmother Tilly, who obviously had the passion and sense of adventure in the family, ran away with their landlord, one Mr. Janks, himself a married man with five children. She left behind her husband and all three children. At that time, in that particular culture of deeply Orthodox, totally rule-bound Jews, there could have been no worse scandal short of murder.

During my childhood my mother often warned the three of us never to ask my father any questions at all about his life because he had been so traumatized by his mother’s abandonment that he didn’t remember a single thing that had happened to him before this event. It was The Great Taboo of our life at home, but I’ve never had much faith in this case of amnesia. (I tend to think amnesia is reserved for shell shock and soap opera.) My father, a man of incredible aloofness, understandably didn’t want to discuss his mother, just as he, not understandably, never allowed us children to discuss anything personal with him in his role as our father. The taboo of his childhood spread to include any wish for intimacy with his female children during his entire life as an adult. My brother, to my surprise and doubt, tells me that he felt able to talk to Daddy about most things, except baseball, which bored him.

Soon the chicken farm failed and hapless Grandfather Ben returned to Manhattan to open a newsstand, also doomed to fail. At sixteen my father left high school to go to work and support his family, as well as Ben’s second wife, Bella, and two half brothers. Clearly dire poverty hadn’t prevented Ben from being a marrying man, although there is some strong, unresolvable question about whether he and Tilly ever got a divorce and whether his remarriage was legal.

My father started out as an office boy in an advertising agency, emptying wastebaskets and sharpening pencils. In spite of his lack of a higher education, he turned out to be a born copywriter. By the time he was twenty-four, he and a partner had opened their own agency. Their first client was Smith Brothers’ Cough Drops—Trade and Mark, as the brothers were known—an American classic now long gone.

Daddy also revised his last name to the more easily pronounced Tarcher and the rest of his family followed suit. As far as I know, outside of our relatives, there is no one else in this entire country named Tarcher. While he was about it, why didn’t Daddy, with all his copywriter’s cleverness, pick a sturdy, familiar name like Westinghouse, I ask myself as, once again, I have to spell out Tarcher. Judith Westinghouse? I’d buy a book by a woman with that name.

My mother wasn’t born in the United States but in Vilna, in 1900. At that time this much-fought-over city temporarily belonged to Russia, which had seized it from Lithuania. Her father, Joe Brager, a tailor, came to America when she was one and a half, leaving her and his wife, Celia, behind. After he’d saved enough money for their tickets, he sent for them and they arrived when my mother was four. They settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, jammed with poor Jews.

Mommy’s name, according to my birth certificate, written in my father’s handwriting, was Michael, but that must have been an Americanized version of her real name, pronounced something like Mickel, which rhymes with nickel. On her mother’s naturalization papers she was identified as Mollie, eleven years of age. But long before that, the Irish Catholic teachers in her public school decided that she looked too Irish to be a Mickel, and called her Mary, which became her legal name, although she was known, all of her life, as Mickey.

Mickey Tarcher was far from thoughtful when she picked my middle name. For many years I kept it well hidden, a deeply embarrassing secret. Reader, I know you understand that no little girl could admit to Bluma-Gittel! It means pretty flower in Yiddish, and my mother explained it by saying that she’d chosen it to please her own mother, a reason that cuts no ice with me.

When I had to give my middle name for my high-school diploma, I told the school that it was Beryl, although where I discovered this unusual and dated name is as much a mystery to me now as why I liked it then . . . or why I didn’t pick Westinghouse. It certainly indicates an early attempt at a glamorous, up-market transformation. Viscountess Beryl sounds just right, very Happy Valley.

By the time I graduated from college, I opted for plain Judith Tarcher on my diploma. When I needed my birth certificate to get a marriage license, I discovered that my middle name was registered as a simple, blunt Bluma. To me that sounds too much like bloomer, as in underwear. Why did my mother mislead me until I was twenty-six? Now, after naming hundreds of characters in novels, I’ve learned to appreciate the quaint charm of Bluma-Gittel, which never fails to win a laugh.

Mickel-Mary-Mollie-Michael-Mickey learned English quickly, a language she spoke with elegant, eloquent, accentless precision, but she continued to speak to her parents in fluent Yiddish, of which my American-born father possessed only a few words. Four other children were born to Celia, of whom three survived, while my grandfather, described by my mother as a man who drank too much and had unpredictable moods, all bad, struggled to make a living.

My mother, like my father, had to drop out of high school after one year, in her own words, tearfully and tragically, no go, no shoes, no carfare. She once told me that the only way, in Williamsburg, to tell the very, very poor from very poor, was the ability to go to high school. She found out that she was a member of the poorest class when, at fourteen, she had to go to work in a candy factory, dipping cherries in chocolate, in order to contribute to the upkeep of the younger children. As soon as she’d saved enough money, she took a business course at night, and by the time she was sixteen, she was a qualified bookkeeper, stenographer, and typist.

Brilliant, hardworking, indomitable Mickey Brager had huge ambition and she moved, without losing a single day’s pay, to half a dozen jobs in the course of the next seven years, eventually earning the sum, amazingly large for 1924, of forty dollars a week. At night she took high-school courses.

For decades I demanded an account of her life. She was a woman who hated to put words on paper, and when I rebelled at never getting any letters from her during four years at college, where, as in Paris, I dutifully wrote home three times a week, she finally sent me a letter that said only, You know how I dislike writing letters, please don’t ask for them. However, I persisted in wanting her history, and eventually she grudgingly wrote four pages of graceful prose.

I attended lectures, she remembered of this working period of her life. I stayed up into the morning hours talking, discussing, arguing, criticizing, admiring, and growing. I grew away from Brooklyn, all my waking hours were spent in Manhattan and at twenty-one I moved to Manhattan, where I shared an apartment with another girl. Her parents put up no obstacles to this move, excessively rare for an unmarried girl of that period, because they realized it would do them no good, and in any case, her success so amazed them that they felt no right to meddle in her life.

Not long afterward, my mother met my father and they began to live together sometime in 1923. On October 27, 1924, they went to City Hall and got married. They were such different types that they made an interesting and most attractive couple. My mother was enchanting looking, tiny and graceful, five feet one inch at a generous estimate, a flapper dancing out of a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her short, fine brown hair was cut close to her beautifully shaped skull in a perfect Vidal Sassoon style, and her bangs reached almost to her carefully plucked and penciled eyebrows. She had a small straight nose, large gray eyes, and a particularly dainty mouth. Daddy was well over five feet ten inches tall, round of face, with a hairline that had already receded as far as it ever would, and big glasses he wore at all times. His look, which never changed as he grew older, was of a wise, thoughtful, benign Buddha. He had a sudden, rare smile that transformed his serene, serious features, although his general aspect was calm and introspective. He had a strong resemblance to the immortal Benny Goodman.

From the minute of her marriage my mother’s life was transformed. It was a classic Cinderella story. Daddy’s advertising agency was growing quickly, he’d bought out his partner, and he immediately liberated her from all care.

Do whatever you want to do with your life, Mickey, he told her. Within a month she had entered college at New York University, still shy of one high-school credit. Marriage freed my mother to get a formal education, something my father never had the time to do, although few men were ever more thoroughly self-educated through books. My most familiar image of my father is of him sitting patiently by the front door, coat already on, hat on the console table nearby, engrossed in a book while my mother finished dressing to go out for the evening. If it had taken her two hours longer, he wouldn’t have noticed or minded.

In her account of her first four years of marriage, my mother wrote, I had everything. I had love, comfort, history, economics, and philosophy. My youthful intuitions and emotions were being intellectually validated, my aesthetic expression gratified. At least she put love first.

My mother was to prove a whiz at academics and a genius at family planning. I never got pregnant when I didn’t want to, she told me proudly, and I always got pregnant when I did.

I was born on an extended Christmas vacation during her senior year in college and was promptly handed over to a German nurse named Mrs. Glentz while the new mother returned to class and graduated that June. My sister, Mimi, was born seventeen months later, the following June, in 1929, during a summer that promised Mommy a few months of leisure for childbearing as she waited impatiently for the next school year to begin so that she could start her graduate studies in economics at Columbia University. My brother, Jeremy, was born in 1932 during yet another Christmas vacation, just before my mother began to write her master’s thesis.

In 1934, after ten years of marriage, my energetic mother had garnered two college degrees and three children whose ages ranged from two to six. She chose that presumably idle and unoccupied moment to enter Teachers College, planning to earn a doctorate in education. Soon she decided that she didn’t have the patience to become a teacher—an accurate and most fortunate decision for generations of schoolchildren—so she enrolled in NYU Law School instead.

It was too early in history for Mickey Tarcher to have heard of the quaint notion of spending quality time with her children. Rather, as she put it, I would defend the poor, civil liberties, and the right in all things.

My mother stuck to this idealistic creed most of her life. She started her political life as a Young Socialist, and later helped found the Liberal Party in New York with labor leader David Dubinsky, because the Democrats weren’t liberal enough for her. She even ran for City Council on the Liberal Party line in the 1940s, and although she lost, she drew more votes than any third-party candidate ever had on the strongly Democratic West Side of Manhattan. However, she cast her last vote for Richard Nixon! This is a family disgrace no one can begin to understand or explain, except that she had become fanatically anti-Communist.

Our family life was dominated by two things: my father’s remoteness and my mother’s strength. All of his life, the instant Daddy heard a voice raised in anger, or even momentary irritation, he silently got up and left the room, going to his bedroom, where he immediately lost himself in a book. This reaction was particularly impressive and effective during a family dinner.

My father’s attitude had the effect of leaving all the power of running the family in my mother’s far-from-unwilling hands. It was she who decided which one of us was right or wrong in all disputes, she who meted out punishments and rewards, she who picked our schools, she who decreed if our allowances could be raised from a dime to fifteen cents, she who ran every detail in our daily lives. She was all three branches of our family government. There was no court of appeals.

I HAVE NEVER known a more enigmatic man than my father. This normally silent parent was famous in the world of Jewish philanthropy for his verbal ability and was such an irresistibly effective fund-raiser that he was in demand to speak at charity functions dozens of times a year. He was rarely at home after dinner during the fund-raising season, and my mother was away as well, on her own philanthropic rounds, working particularly hard for HIAS, an organization devoted to helping immigrant Jews get settled in the United States. As they were entirely secular Jews, this unceasing activity was obviously my parents’ form of expressing a spiritual feeling they didn’t have, and a superb substitute in my

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  • (3/5)
    This should really be called "Completely, Utterly, Devastatingly, Superbly: A Woman and the Adverbs she Loved Unreservedly" ...but I only kid because I love.
    The first half of the book is totally dishy and fun, with the kind of descriptions of "what normal people did in the olden days" that are absolute catnip to me. The second half drags a bit, but overall a super fun read!